The #MeToo movement has made women’s activism more visible in the mainstream—most specifically through the #TimesUp initiative. That campaign, led by feminist celebrities, launched at the beginning of the year when eight activists came to the Golden Globes as their “dates,” shining a light on their grassroots work and allowing the decades-long activism of women’s rights organizations to take center stage in the midst of a Hollywood reckoning with sexual harassment and exploitation.
Violence against women is ubiquitous and universal. Research from 87 countries shows that 19 percent of women and girls have experienced violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months. The visibility offered by these high-profile celebrity movement is important, and its ramifications could reverberate around the world—but the capacity of women to make their voices heard and defend themselves against violence differs greatly based on race, class and local context. The women who need to see a spotlight to find their ways out of exploitation and violence remain the women most vulnerable—not just to experiencing it, but in the wake of it and in their pursuits of justice.
As Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, has said: “Sexual violence knows no race, class, or gender, but the response to it does.” While all women stand to benefit from initiatives like #TimesUp, it will take hard work to make sure no one gets left behind, or left out altogether.
Women, particularly women of color, are the backbone of feminist movements to eradicate and address violence. One only has to look at the #TimesUp activist guest list at the Golden Globes to see that these leaders and their organizations are the often-invisible drivers of progress and change: Marai Larasi, the executive director of Imkaan, a black feminist organization that works to respond to and prevent violence against marginalized women and girls; Ai-Jen Poo, the leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
These women and others like them are leading the resistance on the ground to policies and practices that harm women and girls. They also come from communities that bear the brunt of sexual exploitation, violence and harassment—and our culture which largely allows and rewards it.
Take, for example, indigenous women around the world. Canada faces a violence against women crisis for First Nations, Inuit and Metis women; women from these communities face violence at three times the rate of non-Aboriginal women, and this has been woefully unaddressed by the Canadian government. First Nations women fall through the cracks because federal laws pertaining to matrimonial property rights are not applicable on native lands, leaving survivors of domestic violence with no option but to find safe places off their land. First Nations women have little protection from or support following domestic violence from either their local or federal governments. In the U.S., laws against violence often have not equitably protected or supported Native women—even though they suffer disproportionately from sexual violence.
The #MeToo movement acts as a mainstream rallying call for the rest of the world about an issue that our global leaders urgently need to address. Women’s rights organizations have been advocating for laws, policies and services to address violence and abuse on global, national and local platforms for decades. Without their mobilization, the tremendous progress in terms of laws that address domestic violence would be unthinkable: today, three-quarters of countries have such laws. Yet in many, implementation remains weak—and globally, 49 countries still have no legislation on domestic violence and 45 countries have no legislation that specifically addresses sexual harassment.
A recent report by UN Women highlights that the buck does not stop with laws and policy alone. Laws need to be supported by services for survivors and prevention efforts to prevent violence before it happens. Efforts to prevent gender-based violence will only be successful if they are radical and unapologetic in challenging the unequal gender power relations that lie at its root. Unfortunately, the truth is that most countries still fall short of such an integrated and far reaching approach—and even where such initiatives are in place, they may not work for women and girls who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.
The bridge #TimesUp built between celebrity activism and grassroots feminism is important—and we must continue to fight against sexual violence and harassment on all fronts, including putting in the continued efforts to change laws and how policies are implemented. We can do this by making the work of women’s rights activists visible as they rally for social change. We do this by demanding policies that respect our humanity and autonomy in relationships. We do this by holding our societies accountable for valuing our contributions both in and out of the workplace.
This is all possible when we push for smart and systemic reforms driven by feminist research and activism. We’ve been shown the way—let’s keep fighting together and make sure nobody gets left behind on the way toward a better world.
Katherine Austin-Evelyn is a consultant with UN Women’s Research and Data section, a Director at philanthropic consulting firm Changing Our World and a published academic author. She was previously a Program Officer for the International Women’s Health Coalition’s Program Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation team.
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